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This is Part 1 of a series examining how leading companies are leveraging carbon offsetting and REDD+  to sustain their environmental footprint and target climate change.

“Our vision is about having a proportionate social impact on society.”

That’s how Jillian Fransen, Barclays’ director of Citizenship describes the bank’s elevated – and recently refreshed – sustainability agenda. Among the new elements: a three-year CSR strategy released last year, new stretch environmental targets, supporting growth among the SME sector, and a new Balance Scorecard, which benchmarks remuneration for the bank’s top 125 executives according to four Cs – one of which is Citizenship.

Fransen’s team is also on the cusp of launching an industry-leading Code of Conduct, besides managing and maintaining a 60 million-pound Community Investment Fund and a 20 million-pound Social Innovation Fund, created specifically to seed projects and partnerships that really push the needle on sustainability.

But, of all the things Barclays is doing, what piqued my interest was a core concentration on reducing its unavoidable emissions through carbon offsetting in the company’s climate program.

Carbon Offsetting: Need vs. Efficacy

Now while carbon offsetting has suffered from its share of misconceptions – and remains a relatively new idea in the U.S. – there is a critical need today to get past the debate and begin addressing unavoidable emissions.

Because despite the most robust plans in place that curb air travel and other activities, commerce requires both energy and fuel. And with the growth, availability – not to mention supporting infrastructure – of renewables relatively slow, it becomes a question of operating with what’s available. That is the reality for businesses. And Barclays is no exception.

Calling them “unavoidable emissions,” Fransen explained:

“We buy offsets for the footprint we incur outside our minimization program. We are doing everything we can to minimize emissions but there are those unavoidable emissions that we just cannot remove – like air travel. So to minimize their impact, offsetting fits quite well in our Climate Program.”

The Program focuses on three areas: climate change, developing products for low carbon economies and risk management services for clients with low carbon opportunities.

The firm, which wants to minimize its environmental footprint by 10 percent by 2015, works with Wildlife Works and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation [REDD+] projects for its offsets strategy. According to the United Nations website, REDD+ “is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.”

As Sibilia decoded in his article, the intended impact of the offsetting (emission reductions) leads to not only forest conservation but also a parallel movement to create self-sustaining social enterprises that recuperate the local economies and build social independence. Therein lies the true impact of UN REDD Programmeoffsetting, he concluded.

For Fransen, similarly, the appeal of working with REDD+ lay in Wildlife Works’ expertise and experience in protecting threatened forests  – and its track record with local communities. “Twenty percent of emissions come from deforestation so it made sense for us to partner with organizations that could help us find areas where forests were being destroyed. That way we can have direct impact where it is most needed,” she said.

Then there is the added advantage of targeting local communities in key markets where Barclays operates. “We wanted to take accountability for our footprint. Additionally, Wildlife Works operates in Kenya, which is a key market for us. We are in 13 African countries – the oldest bank across eastern Africa — so having an on-the-ground partner there was key for us. ”

The real impact of implementing a carbon offsetting strategy then for Barclays?

“Create accountability for a footprint that the firm is otherwise unable to get rid of. That wakes people up. When we can have localized impact, it’s a win for us,” she responded.

Climate Change: Decoding the Impact of a Bank

Besides what seems to be the main area – air travel – what is Barclays most challenging source of carbon emissions?

“We have a network of hundreds of small branches. Our biggest challenge is availability and collection of relevant data about our water and paper use as well as waste. Not all our operations have the same level of management and facility support. Especially in Africa, it is very hard to ensure commitment to some of the improvements that are required in this year,” she said.

Another challenging area is the bank’s indirect impacts through its lending practices. “Where we choose to lend and what impact that has on the environment is critical. We need to hit this on a macro level. When you go to lend to an oil and gas company, we need to stand up to our commitment. They work with a minimum of 16 banks – we’re one piece of a large network,” she explained.

The Need For “Some Serious Leadership”

While our conversation mostly focused on Barclays’ carbon reduction strategy, it was hard to contextualize that without questioning what role Fransen’s contemporaries in the financial sector needed to play to sensibly address climate change.

Could Barclays continue to make progress without reciprocation from a sector busy repairing tarnished reputations from the financial crisis?

“There is a major shift going on toward a realistic understanding of what we need to do to adapt to climate change. In my opinion, none of this is happening quickly enough though. We need some serious leadership within our industry in the next five years to change gears on climate change,” she emphasized.

“Our biggest challenge is making it real for everyone in the organization. We have 142,000 employees that manage a matrix of clients and customers. The [impact they can have] is profound. I’d like to see us capitalize on this matrix much more. There’s a feeling, not limited to banking, that we’re doing our bit and everyone else will do theirs – and we’ll be okay.”

“Fact is, the issues are way more pressing for us to rest on that assumption.”

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on August  28, 2013.